The Metaphysics of “A Christmas Carol”

Have you ever seen a ghost? If you did, would you think you were having a hallucination, or would you think you were being visited by the spirit world, whose supernatural beings give off their own eery light?

Charles Dickens seems to leave all possibilities open in his Preface to the most famous of all ghost stories.

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,

C. D.
December, 1843. [published on the 19th]

Does Dickens mean for us to believe that the ghosts in A Christmas Carol come from a real supernatural realm, and are sent to set Ebenezer Scrooge straight? Or do all ghosts come from within Scrooge himself? If so, Scrooge has a remarkable series of hallucinations. He has visual experiences of ghosts which do not exist outside his own mind.

Sense-perception has long been a preoccupation of philosophers. One pervasive and traditional problem, sometimes called “the Problem of Perception”, is created by the phenomena of perceptual illusion and hallucination: if these kinds of error are possible, how can perception be what we ordinarily understand it to be, an openness to and awareness of the world? (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Problem of Perception”)

Visual hallucination involves an image that is being created inside our mind, rather than by light reflected from a physical object. What is that image made of? If Marley’s Ghost, the first Scrooge encounters is a hallucination, the ghost itself does not exist. So the answer to the question, “what does the ghost consist of” is “nothing at all”. However, the image of the ghost—the hallucination itself— certainly does exist. So the answer to the question of what the image consists of cannot be “nothing”. What then?

Our question is a little different from that which the most famous of all misers, Ebenezer Scrooge, deals with: what causes the ghostly image to appear in his mind?

Marley’s Ghost is one the best described hallucinations in all of literature. At the start of the story, Scrooge does not believe in Christmas. “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” It’s a cold and bleak Christmas Eve, seven years to the night after the death of Jacob Marley, who was Scrooge’s business partner. Marley has been condemned to walk the earth burdened with chains for being as much a miser during life as his partner Scrooge. First, Marley’s face appears fleetingly in Scrooge’s door knocker. An excerpt:

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not
conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a
stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his
hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily,
walked in, and lighted his candle.

“Humbug!” said Scrooge; and walked across the room.

Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in
haunted houses were described as dragging chains.
The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and
then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below;
then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards
his door.

“It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.”

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it
came on through the heavy door, and passed into the
room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying
flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him;
Marley’s Ghost!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail,
usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter
bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair
upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his
middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and
it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cashboxes,
keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses
wrought in steel. His body was transparent; so that
Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his
waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.
Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no
bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked
the phantom through and through, and saw it standing
before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its
death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the
folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which
wrapper he had not observed before; he was still
incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever.
“What do you want with me?”

“Much!”—Marley’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then?” said Scrooge, raising his voice.
“You’re particular, for a shade.” He was going to say “to
a shade,” but substituted this, as more appropriate.

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

“Can you—can you sit down?” asked Scrooge, looking
doubtfully at him.

“I can.”

“Do it, then.”

Scrooge asked the question, because he didn’t know
whether a ghost so transparent might find himself in a
condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its
being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an
embarrassing explanation. But the ghost sat down on the
opposite side of the fireplace, as if he were quite used to

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond
that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A
slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You
may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a
crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.
There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever
you are!”

Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor
did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The
truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of
distracting his own attention, and keeping down his
terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow
in his bones.

To sit, staring at those fixed glazed eyes, in silence for a
moment, would play, Scrooge felt, the very deuce with
him. There was something very awful, too, in the
spectre’s being provided with an infernal atmosphere of
its own. Scrooge could not feel it himself, but this was
clearly the case; for though the Ghost sat perfectly
motionless, its hair, and skirts, and tassels, were still
agitated as by the hot vapour from an oven.

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face. “Mercy!” he said. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?”

“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”

The perception of Marley is so vivid, Scrooge ends up believing in the ghost. So isn’t the change in belief caused by the image of Marley? Dan Dennett does not think so:

Remember Ebenezer Scrooge saying to Marley’s ghost: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Many would insist that there has to be a ghost-shaped intermediary in the causal chain between blot of mustard and belief in Marley, but Scrooge might be right in addressing his remark to the cause of his current condition, and be leaving nothing Marley-shaped out.

I insist! There must be a Marley-shaped image in the causal chain between blot of mustard and belief in Marley. Scrooge is considering the possibility that he is having a hallucination caused by indigestion. He tells the apparent hallucination that he is only mustard. What Scrooge means is that if the ghost is caused solely by a blot of mustard, then the ghost is not a visitor from the spirit world. The visual experience would then have nothing to do with any mind-independent entity.

Whether Scrooge decides Marley’s Ghost is a hallucination or not, the key evidence in shaping the decision is Scrooge’s Marley-shaped visual experience. Is that a real ghost or a hallucination? So why does Dennett doubt there is a ghost-shaped intermediary in the causal chain?

Dennett is no fan of any kind of immaterial images which resist reduction to good old physical objects. Hence the mustard. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that an especially severe attack of indigestion could cause the most vivid hallucinations immaginable. Nevertheless, the visual experience of Marley’s Ghost does not literally consist of mustard.

The causal chain would run something like this: blot of mustard ➢ indigestion ➢ nerve impulses (Dennett calls them spike trains) to Scrooge’s brain ➢ disruption of normal neural firing ➢ disruption of Scrooge’s psychological mechanisms suppressing his guilt about his life and memories of Marley ➢ memories of Marley enter Scrooge’s consciousness ➢  combined with strong guilt feelings, Marley appears to Scrooge’s consciousness as a ghost ➢  the image of Marley is so vivid Scrooge becomes convinced that Marley’s Ghost is not a hallucination. So there is a ghost-shaped step in the causal chain from mustard to belief.

Dennett would like us to think that the any psychological goings-on in Scrooge, including new beliefs, are nothing more than neurons firing. We all agree that mustard causes unusual neuron firings. Don’t some of those neuron firings in turn cause the hallucination?

Whatever causes Marley’s Ghost, the hallucination does not consist of mustard. Neurons are closer to the mark, but in what sense can Marley’s Ghost consist of neuronal activity?

We cannot talk about a hallucination without talking about an immaterial mental image. Hallucinations are a big problem for materialists like Dennett.

A final note about Dennett’s comment on Scrooge.

He says: “Scrooge might be right in addressing his remark to the cause of his current condition, and be leaving nothing Marley-shaped out.”

But doesn’t he really mean to say: “Scrooge might be right in addressing his remark to the cause of his current condition, and in leaving everything Marley-shaped out.”

Dennett’s point is that Scrooge tries to minimize Marley by calling him merely a blot of mustard. Scrooge leaves everything Marley-shaped— all images— out of his explanation of his experience. This is to contrast with some like me. I’m one of the many who insist there has to be a ghost-shaped step in the causal chain from mustard to belief, and that therefore nothing Marley-shaped should be left out of the explanation of Scrooge’s experience.


Illustration from 1843 first edition. Film still above is from the 1938 movie with Reginald Owen as Scrooge and Leo G. Carroll as Marley

1 Comment

  1. Bonus coverage. The opening paragraphs.

    MARLEY was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt
    whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed
    by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief
    mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was
    good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his
    hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

    Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own
    knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail.
    I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a
    coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the
    trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile;
    and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the
    Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to
    repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.

    Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How
    could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I
    don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole
    executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole
    residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And
    even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad
    event, but that he was an excellent man of business on
    the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an
    undoubted bargain.


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